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Bannon gets Trump pardon in We Build The Wall scheme; co-defendants left out

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

WASHINGTON — As the final hours of President Donald Trump's term ticked down Tuesday night, he issued dozens of pardons, including one for former White House chief political strategist Steve Bannon. 

Bannon was indicted last year by a federal grand jury on single counts of conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The charges were filed in connection with an alleged scheme that improperly transferred $1 million from a nonprofit organization created by an Air Force veteran in Miramar Beach, Florida, to a California-based nonprofit group headed by Bannon. Bannon allegedly used hundreds of thousands of those dollars for personal expenses.

Did you know?:Private border wall effort accused of violating federal law

Who did Trump pardon?:Here's the full list of the 143 people who received last-minute clemency

Three other men allegedly involved in the scheme were not pardoned by Trump. Among them was Brian Kolfage, the Air Force veteran who founded the nonprofit involved in the alleged scheme. Kolfage, who lost both legs and an arm in a 2004 rocket attack in Iraq, founded We Build The Wall Inc. in 2019 to use private donations to construct sections of wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Kolfage was charged in the same indictment as Bannon in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, also on single counts of conspiracy to commit money laundering and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. The indictment alleges that Kolfage received $350,000 in donations to We Build The Wall, using the money in part to purchase two luxury sport utility vehicles and a high-end fishing boat.

Also indicted in the scheme on the same charges as Bannon and Kolfage were Sarasota County resident Andrew Badolato and Denver businessman Timothy Shea. The two men are alleged to have created shell companies and other means to transfer donations from We Build The Wall to Kolfage.

Related:Trump issues pardon for Bannon, his former adviser, but leaves out Sarasota County man

All four men pleaded not guilty to the charges, and with the exception now of Bannon, trial has been set for May. Kolfage, Badolato and Shea continue to face the possibility of spending as long as 40 years in prison if convicted.  

In a text message exchange with the Daily News on Tuesday afternoon before the early Wednesday morning announcement of the Bannon pardon, Kolfage said he had not pushed for a pardon and had not been expecting one. But, he added, the Bannon pardon is a welcome development for his and his co-defendant's pending federal case.

"I don't know if I'm getting one," Kolfage said in a Tuesday night text message after news of Bannon's pardon began leaking from the White House. "... (B)ut either way, this is good news." With Bannon's pardon, Kolfage said, "(the prosecutors in the Southern District of New York) just lost half of their already weak case."

Kolfage contended Tuesday that Bannon had represented "a war trophy" from "the MAGA movement."

"... (T)he corrupt SDNY wanted (Bannon's) head on a platter," Kolfage texted.

"I think Bannon would have rather slugged it out to clear his name," Kolfage added. "But for him the risk is greater than anyone right now with our country being so divided. I don't believe he could get a fair trial in (New York City) where he is public enemy No. 1." 

In case you missed it: Kolfage says politics, misunderstanding behind fraud conspiracy indictment

Wounded warrior Brian Kolfage of Miramar Beach looks at a campaign sign for President Donald Trump at the site of a border wall construction project undertaken by his nonprofit We Build The Wall Inc. Kolfage and three other men were indicted in connection with  the alleged fraudulent transfer of funds to Kolfage from the nonprofit organization.  One of the men, Steven Bannon, received a pardon from outgoing President Donald Trump on Tuesday.

Trump had distanced himself from Bannon since Bannon left the White House in 2017 in the midst of political jostling with Trump's daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner. Trump re-emphasized that distance last summer when Bannon was arrested on the fraud and money laundering charges, saying he didn't know anything about the private border-wall construction initiative.

In recent days, though, the two men began talking again as Trump reached out to Bannon for guidance on overturning the results of the Nov. 3 election that ended Trump's single term in office, according to Bloomberg News.

Previously:Wounded Florida veteran Kolfage planning lawsuit against Postal Inspection Service

Border wall construction had been a centerpiece initiative of the Trump administration, with the president promising that Mexico would pay for the work. That didn't happen, and in the end, much of the work done by the federal government during Trump's term was the rehabilitation of existing sections of wall rather than construction of new wall.

U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, a staunch Trump ally, had urged the president to pardon Bannon, Kolfage, Badolato and Shea. According to Kolfage, Gosar delivered the names to Trump in an Oval Office meeting in December. 

Late last month, Gosar went on Twitter to suggest that the four men should be considered for presidential pardons.

Wounded Air Force veteran Brian Kolfage of Miramar Beach did not receive a pardon from outgoing President Donald Trump.

"More pardons are needed. I’ve expressed my support to @realDonaldTrump to pardon ... anyone indicted with @WeBuildtheWall — a clear political persecution. Our DOJ (the U.S. Department of Justice, under which federal courts operate) is corrupt and inept."

In a subsequent statement emailed to the Daily News, Gosar said, “President Trump should consider pardoning all individuals indicted by corrupt DOJ political persecutions, including wounded warrior Brian Kolfage.”

"We thought it was pretty cool at first," Kolfage said Tuesday of Gosar's intercession with Trump on behalf of the four men. But, "We've spoken out before to not get pardoned because we believe we will win this case very easily," he added.

"We left the pardon in the hands of fate," Kolfage said before news of Bannon's pardon. "If it happens it happens, but it's not worth having a pardon from something that we haven't even been convicted of when we know the true details of the case are in our favor to win."

Kolfage has said the case being pursued by federal prosecutors is politically motivated. In a recent interview, Kolfage noted that the indictment was handed down in August, just three months before the presidential election lost by Trump, "to hurt the president and to try to tie him to us."

In a recent interview with the Daily News, Kolfage would not provide bills of sale documenting the purchases of the sport utility vehicles and boat noted in the indictment against him. He did, though, provide a buyer's order for the boat from 2017 and offered Instagram photos from 2015 and 2017, respectively, that show two Range Rover SUVs he claimed to have owned. The buyer's order and the photographs pre-date the founding of We Build The Wall Inc.

In this 2017 photo, President Donald Trump congratulates Steve Bannon during his swearing-in as senior counselor to the president.

Kolfage also has contended that prosecutors pursued the case to get We Build The Wall's donor list.

"They want to see who these people are who are donating to these powerful conservative causes," Kolfage said earlier this year.

The GoFundMe campaign

Kolfage's private wall-building effort began in late 2018 as a GoFundMe campaign aimed at raising money to assist the federal government with border wall construction. But in early 2019, with donations stalled at about $20 million, Kolfage established the nonprofit organization to fund private construction of the border wall.

Donald Trump, Jr., right, son of President Donald Trump, visits with We Build The Wall founder and wounded warrior Brian Kolfage in 2019 in Sunland Park, New Mexico, where the nonprofit organization built its first section of wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The nonprofit, operating with money shifted from the GoFundMe effort — GoFundMe donors were given the option of having their money rolled over to the nonprofit, or getting a refund — eventually claimed to have raised $25 million. According to Kolfage, We Build The Wall spent $8.5 million on an almost mile-long section of border wall in Sunland Park, New Mexico, and allocated an additional $1.5 million to build a 3.5-mile section of wall built in Mission, Texas, by a contractor operating separately from the nonprofit, Kolfage said.

Earlier this year, according to Kolfage, the nonprofit's board of directors voted to give him a salary, which Kolfage said was legal as long as that compensation came from new donations.

As far as wall construction is concerned, Kolfage said in October — after his role with We Build The Wall had ended — that the organization had been working with the federal Department of Homeland Security to investigate a list of projects for which the department had indicated it needed some help.